Saturday, May 17, 2014

Remembering Jimmy, Help Us Never Forget

25 years ago on a warm May night in Southern California, I sat on the floor of our apartment watching t.v. on our console television. I don't remember what I was watching, it was early evening the sky was still light but I remember the little yellow words that scrolled across the screen. Across the screen of the show I was watching the words "Frigate USS Stark bombed in the Persian Gulf off the coast of Iraq" crawled slowly across the screen.

"Mom, Mom, Jimmy's ship has been bombed" I yelled into the kitchen where Mom was cooking dinner. She came out and tried to tell me I was wrong. "No Mom, I am right. Jimmy is on the Stark. I know it" she ran to the phone to call my Gramie. I was only 10 years old, 4 months shy of my 11th birthday.

Of course, Gramie confirmed that I was correct and we waited. The next day word came, Jimmy was one of 37 sailors killed on the Stark. Jimmy was actually my Mom's cousin, son of her beloved Aunt Pat in Visalia. Aunt Pat was the sister of my Kankad ( Grandad) and the only living relative we had to my Grandad who had passed away several years earlier.

We often made the trip up the 99 north to Visalia to see Aunt Pat and her boys. She had five boys whom were more like brothers to my mom. In fact, their families had lived together when my grandparents moved out from Kansas in the 50's until my grandparents bought a house. They were a close knit family and I grew up close to the boys as well. We all referred to each other as "cuz" and just loved being together.

I remember my last visit in the winter, seeing Jimmy come down the hall wearing a sweater and his trademark smile. He had served one enlistment in the Navy and re-enlisted for a second. He had told my Gramie that he was going somewhere he really didn't want to go. In fact, a letter from Jimmy arrived just days before his death for my Gramie. He never failed to remember his "Aunt Mearle" by sending her cards, letters  and gifts. It was a ceramic Stark ashtray in Gramie's living room that was in my mind when I saw the little yellow words.
Bob Kumerow and James Stevens
1987 on board the USS Stark Courtesy Karen Stevens

Seeing the face you love in the newspaper in class at school listed as one of the dead is something you never get over. Seeing your aunt receiving a flag with your mom bawling in the background splashed across the front page of another paper. Things like that never leave you as much as remembering a beautiful smile and a great laugh. He was my uncle Greg's best friend and I can say that Greg never was the same after that day. Nobody was the same ever again...death has a way of leaving that mark.
2/8/60-5/17/87 Freedom isn't free

A year later, the Veterans in Visalia decided to start hanging casket flags in the cemetary on Memorial day and having service to remember. My Aunt Pat was one of the first to donate and Jimmy's is flag number 36 right as you walk in. In 1990, she asked me to attend with her and I remember her standing when they asked the gold star mom's to stand. It was held under a green funeral awning in a grassy area, maybe 60 people in attendance. She wanted me to take a picture with by Jimmy's flag together which I didn't know would start a tradition in years to come.

Aunt Pat and Julie May 1991

In the years following, I would grow closer to Aunt Pat. She was a huge part of my life and I eventually moved to be close to her. I got to spend two years living in the same town as her and enjoyed that special time together.

She passed away in 2001. I continue the tradition of going to the cemetery each memorial day for the service. It was grown to nearly a thousand in attendance with almost two thousand flags lining the streets of the cemetery. It is truly one of the most beautiful, moving sights to behold. Each year, I line my kids up in front of Jimmy's flag and make them take a picture. Next year, I hope to be able to attend the national memorial in Mayport,Florida to represent our family.

I want my kids to know that freedom comes at a cost. I want to carry on a mother's love and make sure her son isn't forgotten. To make sure that a memory lives on and the world doesn't forget. Jimmy never got to see 30, I have lived longer than he did now.  Life has gone on but the memories don't fade and I won't let that ever happen.